A Taliban suicide bombing followed by a firefight on a key security agency compound in the heart of Kabul Tuesday killed at least 28 people and wounded more than 300, according to Afghan officials.
A minibus packed with explosives ripped through Kabul’s Puli Mahmood Khan neighbourhood — a densely packed area that is home to several Afghan security compounds — during the morning rush hour.
The bombing was followed by a firefight, marking the first major Taliban offensive since the militant Islamist group announced the start of the spring fighting season a week ago.
Police sources told reporters the blast occurred near the NDS (National Directorate of Security) compound in central Kabul, which is near the Ministry of Interior headquarters.
At least 28 people were killed, according to Afghan police officials, and more than 300 people were wounded, including women and children, said health officials.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms” in a statement from the presidential palace.
“Today’s terrorist attack near Puli Mahmood Khan area of Kabul city demonstrates the clear defeat of the enemy in the face-to-face fight against Afghan security forces,” the Afghan presidential palace said in a statement on Twitter.
Reporting from Kabul for FRANCE 24, Bilal Sarwary said the scale and sophistication of the attack in one of Kabul’s most heavily secured neighbourhood raises serious security questions.
“President Ghani said the Taliban can’t face the Afghan security forces in face-to-face battles, that’s why they are conducting attacks like this. But the president’s word will do little to restore the confidence of the Afghan people in what is clearly a huge security and intelligence failure once more.”
The explosion rattled windows several miles away and sent a plume of thick smoke rising in the sky. Ambulances were seen rushing to the blast site and medical officials said a number of wounded had been rushed to a nearby hospital. The area around the explosion was immediately cordoned off by security sources, according to witnesses and reporters in the Afghan capital.
Counter-terrorism experts in the Afghan Interior Ministry said initial findings showed very potent explosives were used in the minibus bombing to cause maximum casualties, according to Sarwary.
Warning sirens blared out from the embassy compound, which is also close to the headquarters of the main NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.
The US embassy said they were not affected by the blast. The NATO military coalition also said they were unaffected.
Taliban claims attack
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a Twitter posting shortly after the blast ripped through central Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed their fighters had managed to enter the offices of the NDS, the main Afghan spy agency.
The Afghan Taliban last Tuesday announced the start of their “spring offensive” even as the government in Kabul seeks to bring the insurgents back to the negotiating table to end their drawn-out conflict.
The Taliban warned they would “employ large-scale attacks on enemy positions across the country” during the offensive dubbed Operation Omari in honour of the movement’s late founder Mullah Omar, whose death was announced last year.
The insurgents began the fighting season last week by targeting the northern city of Kunduz, which they briefly captured last year in a stunning setback for Afghan forces.
But officials said Afghan security forces drove Taliban fighters back from the city on Friday.
The annual spring offensive normally marks the start of the “fighting season”, though this winter the lull was shorter and they continued to battle government forces albeit with less intensity.
The Taliban’s resurgence has raised serious questions about Afghan forces’ capacity to hold their own, with an estimated 5,500 troops killed last year, the worst ever toll.
Peace talks which began last summer were abruptly halted after it was revealed that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been dead for two years.
A four-country group comprising Afghanistan, the US, China and Pakistan has been holding meetings since January aimed at jump-starting negotiations, though their efforts have so far been in vain.